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Esteemed Reader: April 2004 

Perhaps to be really free, one can’t be a healthy animal in a happy herd. —Kathleen Speeth

Esteemed Reader of our Magazine:

In my hazardous adolescence I harbored a small hope that I would naturally evolve into a healthy, balanced, and happy person. Instead, I felt myself going downhill, my state deteriorating into hopelessness and distraction, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

The world I saw was fraught with unhappiness and pretense. Even those who possessed the supposed keys to happiness—money, food, sex, religious consolation—seemed immune to their palliative charms. No one was happy. It was like all the adults and role-models were bad actors with uninspired scripts who had forgotten they were on stage.

In school we were told that this is the golden age—the most advanced period of human history. As evidence we were shown all the feats of science and technology, our immense ability to understand and manipulate objects and energies. Though I couldn’t help being enamored with gadgets, I couldn’t swallow the notion that we are “advanced” in any real sense. For one thing, nobody I knew could reproduce, much less understand, most of the technology that we use every day. Most people couldn’t even reproduce the technology of a hundred years ago—things like building a home, planting a garden, husbanding a herd. If anything, it seemed to me, humanity had gone backwards.

And then there is what could be called the moral side of human progress. With our vaunted technologies we were waging more war and wreaking more havoc than ever before. Politicians were planning mass-destruction. Humankind killed, robbed, and otherwise abused one another on a grand scale. Even our cultural evolution seemed a failure. It seemed to me that, from the standpoint of what really matters, I was living in something far worse than the Dark Ages.
The constructed world of public school—with its textbooks, ignorant teachers (with a couple of exceptions), standardized testing, and abusive jocks—impelled me to seek. I read voraciously anything that gave an explanation for or pointed a way out of the obvious absurdities of life. Finally, I was given a book called In Search of the Miraculous in which I found some answers.

“In speaking of evolution it is necessary to understand from the outset that no mechanical evolution is possible. The evolution of man is the evolution of his consciousness. And ‘consciousness’ cannot evolve unconsciously. The evolution of man is the evolution of his will, and ‘will’ cannot evolve involuntarily. The evolution of man is the evolution of his power of doing, and ‘doing’ cannot be the result of things which ‘happen.’”

The message that each person must take responsibility for her own “evolution” cut me to the quick. It ran contrary to everything I had learned in school—that evolution happened mechanically, by accident, in fits of flight and fighting, and that adaptation was a function of dumb luck and chance. This never sat right. So when I heard that evolution can be taken in hand, that it is the result of a process that develops real faculties in a measurable way, I felt I saw a light on the horizon.

The narrator explained the situation further:

“People are machines. Machines have to be blind and unconscious, they cannot be otherwise, and all their actions have to correspond to their nature. Everything happens. No one does anything. ‘Progress’ and ‘civilization,’ in the real meaning of these words, can appear only as the result of conscious efforts. They cannot appear as the result of unconscious mechanical actions. And what conscious effort can there be in machines? And if one machine is unconscious, then a hundred machines are unconscious, and so are a thousand machines, or a hundred thousand, or a million. And the unconscious activity of a million machines must necessarily result in destruction and extermination. It is precisely in unconscious involuntary manifestations that all evil lies.”

This put some of the absurdities of humanity in perspective for me: We are in the iron grip of habit and are in no way free from the momentous inner and outer forces at work on us. When I recognized myself and many others held in the same mechanical grips, it gave me a relentless feeling of tragedy.

And yet this view also suggests a way out, a means of changing the situation, of becoming free of mechanical behavior through conscious effort. It’s a process fraught with the risk of even deeper disillusionment, because it requires disturbing the fragile, unfounded comforts we possess. Nevertheless, I have concluded (for now) that the effort to get free of the iron grip of habit is the only undertaking truly worthwhile, and the only hope for the survival of our race. Everything else—all the ambitions,
entertainment, and life-games—is just playing around, frittering away the precious moments we have before we are given the hook from the stage of the world.

—Jason Stern

  • Jason Stern reads between the headlines.


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